Seeing Red

Yes, certain trends may favor Democrats. But there’s no denying how dramatically conservatives have shifted the national debate. A response to Larry M. Bartels.

By Thomas B. Edsall

Tagged politics

I appreciate much of what Larry Bartels had to say about my new book, The Age of Austerity. And I am a long-time admirer of Bartels’s work—Unequal Democracy, I think, is a unique and valuable contribution to our political-economic literature. But his review of The Age of Austerity misses key points and makes substantial errors of political judgment. I will briefly quote five key arguments and rebut them.

First, Bartels tries to minimize conservative dominance in our era. He writes:

Much of Edsall’s case for the notion that Republicans enjoy “a substantial long-term advantage” in contemporary politics will sound familiar to readers of [Edsall’s earlier] Building Red America…It seems worth recalling here that this is a party
that has won five presidential elections to the Democrats’ three in the generation since Ronald Reagan…but only with considerable help from the Supreme Court and Osama bin Laden—and a party that has controlled the Senate only half the time and the House of Representatives less than half the time in this period.


I argue, and have argued, that the period from 1968 to 2004 was one of conservative domination, especially in policy-making, and that the right regained this power in 2010-2011. Of crucial importance: The center point of American politics has been pushed substantially to the right. Liberals had fragile control of the national agenda during a brief window immediately after Barack Obama took office. From 1968 to the present, Republicans have won seven out of 11 presidential elections, an enviable batting average. Even during the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, when Democrats controlled both branches of Congress, bids to enact consumer protection, labor-law reform, and health-care legislation, to name just a few initiatives, were defeated.

The scope and consequences of the conservative movement’s success can be demonstrated in a number of ways. Nondefense discretionary spending reached 4.7 percent of GDP in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected. By 2008, it fell to 3.3 percent, a very substantial 32.2 percent decline, reflecting a major shift in national priorities. Under the deficit-reduction program approved by Congress and signed by Obama last year, nondefense discretionary spending is on a further downward path—to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2021, a 46.8 percent reduction from 1980 and a return to 1961 spending levels. The modest DREAM Act, providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who go to college or serve in the military, was rejected by the Senate. Furthermore, by October 2011, the Obama Administration had deported a record number of illegal immigrants for the third straight year. All these examples demonstrate how the country has moved to the right.

In addition, tax policy from 1980 to the present has decisively favored the rich, and Democrats, when in power, have not reversed the rapid growth of inequality. From 1980 to 2011, the top tax rate has been halved, from 70 percent to 35 percent. From 1970 to 2010, according to economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the share of total income going to the top 1 percent has more than doubled, from 7.8 percent to 17.4 percent, and the share going to the top 0.1 percent has nearly quadrupled, going from 1.9 percent in 1970 to 7.5 percent in 2010. During the recent financial collapse, the costs of recession were overwhelmingly imposed on the poor and the working class, both in terms of unemployment and foreclosures, and as financially beleaguered cities and states cut Medicaid and other key services.

The Supreme Court did indeed elect George W. Bush. Control of the federal courts has been one of the signal victories of the right. Recent Republican appointees are striking for their conservative ideological consistency, as Jeffrey Rosen documented in an excellent New York Times Magazine article. The current Court—the most conservative since the mid-1930s—has been a key player in expanding the political and economic power of the privileged in decisions ranging from Citizens United to Wal-Mart v. Dukes, to District of Columbia v. Heller and many more.

Second, Bartels believes I overstate the political consequences for the GOP stemming from its habit of overreach:

While Republicans clearly have the upper hand in Edsall’s account, he acknowledges that “the GOP has often proved to be an inconsistent risk manager, overreaching when victory is at hand, and overestimating ideological support from the general public.” This may be an apt description of Newt Gingrich’s GOP, which clearly overreached in shutting down the government and impeaching the president; but it hardly seems apt as a description of George W. Bush’s GOP…Bush presided over a reckless, ideological fiscal policy and a reckless, ideological war, but the eventual erosion of his public support had much less to do with ideological overreach than with perceived incompetence. As for Boehner, the remarkable intransigence of his Republican congressional caucus, even in the face of a national economic crisis, was rewarded with a midterm election triumph.


In this case, Bartels is wrong. When in power, Republicans have demonstrated a strong tendency to overreach, before, during, and after the 1995-98 Gingrich era. Take the following few examples from over the years. First, Iran-Contra: The Reagan Administration secretly and illegally sold arms to the terrorist government of Iran, disregarding an international arms embargo in order to secretly and illegally finance the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua, despite passage of legislation prohibiting support of the insurgency. Second, George W. Bush’s purposeful distortion of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, at a cost exceeding $2 trillion, the loss of around 4,500 American lives, and more than 33,000 Americans wounded. Third, House passage two years in a row of the Paul Ryan budget—legislation that, if enacted, would fulfill Grover Norquist’s dream of shrinking government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Iran-Contra severely undermined the legitimacy of the Reagan presidency. The 2005 setbacks in Iraq were a driving force in the collapse of Bush’s popularity. In the only test to date, the Ryan budget cost the GOP a House seat in a May 2011 special election, and we will see whether the decisive majorities of Republican members of the House and Senate who voted in favor of the legislation will pay a price this November.

Third, Bartels asserts that I cast aside Occam’s Razor and dwell on complicated explanations for conservative advantage when a simple one would suffice: “Edsall’s…account overlooks a much simpler and more powerful factor in the 2010 election outcome: Electoral support for the president’s party routinely rises and falls with the state of the economy.”

In fact, when the ideological leanings of the 2010 electorate are compared to the four previous off-year congressional elections (1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006), there are some striking differences. These four elections include two, 1994 and 2006, that marked major shifts similar in scope to those of 2010, to the right in 1994, and to the left in 2006. Despite this volatility, the balance of self-identified conservatives, moderates, and liberals remained relatively constant during those four elections: The percentage of voters identifying themselves as conservative ranged from 40 to 46 percent, averaging 42.5 percent. In 2010, in contrast, the electorate became decisively more conservative. Their ranks shot up to 54 percent, a major shift in American politics. Self-described moderates had averaged 40.5 percent; in 2010, their share collapsed to 27 percent, a 13.5-point drop. There is no question that the economy was a major factor in 2010, but the electorate could have turned against the Democrats without changing its ideological stripes; the shift from center to the right points to an ideological upheaval driven by anger over Obamacare, the stimulus, and the sharp rise in the deficit.

Fourth, Bartels argues that Republicans won’t cut domestic budgets too deeply because doing so would harm their own core constituents even more than it would harm Democrats’: “The political challenge facing budget-cutting Republicans is exacerbated by the fact that beneficiaries of government spending are disproportionately concentrated in red states. Federal expenditures made up almost 30 percent of total personal income in the 22 states that voted for John McCain, a significantly higher dependency level than in the states that voted for Barack Obama.”

Here, Bartels does not go deep enough. In many of the red states Bartels refers to, the beneficiaries of federal programs are disproportionately black and Hispanic. Republicans from those states are not supporters of government aid to those constituencies, just as the white Democratic officeholders of the South during the New Deal era not only disregarded the interests of their black constituencies, but, in the case of minimum wage law, pointedly kept black domestic and farm workers out of reach of the law. White elected officials in the South, Democratic earlier and now Republican, have opposed more often than supported the transfer of federal dollars to their minority—and overwhelmingly Democratic—constituents.

Finally, Bartels seems to believe that Mitt Romney’s impending nomination is proof that the 2012 election does not represent unprecedented ideological warfare: “If the party that was not so long ago confidently building Red America is now readying itself to accept Romney as its best hope for victory, that sounds a lot like politics as usual.”

The nomination of Romney is not politics as usual. First, Romney has been forced to tack hard right to win the nomination, and the weakness of the establishment center is reflected in the ability of two highly marginal candidates, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, to win 13 primaries and caucuses. Second, the 2012 election is unlikely to resolve the larger debate. It is simply a matter of odds that Republicans will not sweep the board to win the presidency and both branches of Congress. The conservative wing of the Republican Party, however, sees the 2012 election as a make-or-break event for the increasingly beleaguered, decisively white coalition that has underpinned the right from 1966 forward. Despite pressures from the party’s consultants and strategists to moderate anti-immigrant stands, the party’s elected officials are taking a long-shot gamble on winning control of the executive and legislative branches with a shrinking coalition because such a win in 2012 would empower the party to enact, in 2013, a major retrenchment of the liberal welfare state, capitalizing on the no-filibuster rule controlling Senate debate over budget reconciliation legislation.

In sum, Bartels’s criticism of The Age of Austerity is constrained by his dependence on a micro-level analysis that neither goes deep enough nor wide enough to see larger trends, the scope of Republican ambition, and the significance of the past four decades of conservative domination of the agenda, even at times when Democrats held power.

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Thomas B. Edsall is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He covered national politics at The Washington Post for 25 years.

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